Interview with Kevin Gutzman – Federal Convention
Mandeville, LA – Exclusive Transcript – “Let’s get to the matter at hand here with Professor Kevin Gutzman, who is one of the foremost authorities on James Madison. I wanted to start with the introduction of the Virginia Plan, which happened 237 years ago today. Governor Randolph was, of course, the gentleman that introduced the plan. It wasn’t Madison who introduced it. In the book James Madison and the Making of America, what will we learn about the communication between Randolph and Madison and how that was going to go down?” Check out today’s transcript for the rest…
Begin Mike Church Show Transcript
Mike: Let’s get to the matter at hand here with Professor Kevin Gutzman, who is one of the foremost authorities on James Madison. His book is James Madison and the Making of America. Of course, we have autographed copies in the Founders Tradin’ Post just waiting for you to pick up today. I wanted to start with the introduction of the Virginia Plan, which happened 237 years ago today. Governor Randolph was, of course, the gentleman that introduced the plan. It wasn’t Madison who introduced it. In the book James Madison and the Making of America, what will we learn about the communication between Randolph and Madison and how that was going to go down?
Kevin Gutzman: Well, what happened was that Madison, a very experienced legislator by 1787, realized that if you’re going to have a committee meeting, the thing to do is to go to the meeting with your own proposal, that is if you know that your fellow employees are going to be talking with the manager or the boss about some particular project or problem at work, when you have the meeting, you go with a proposal and you’re apt to have the meeting end up being about your proposal. I have told my students this every time I ever talk about this event. I’ve used this tactic myself repeatedly and it works. Madison, knowing there was going to be this Philadelphia Convention, which is largely his brainchild, persuaded the other Virginia delegates to show up in Philadelphia early. He and especially George Mason and Randolph and the others work out a sketch that’s mainly Madison’s product of what they would like the newly-revised federal constitution to look like. Randolph is going to be the spokesman for Virginia because Madison is diminutive and hard to hear in a group and not an impressive speaker, while, on the other hand, Randolph, the governor, is tall, handsome, by all accounts he’s very well spoken. He’s just the guy for this role.
Essentially what they are going to call for is a new government with, Randolph says a national government with a national legislature, a national executive, and a national judiciary. Executive isn’t really described in the Virginia plan. It doesn’t say whether there should be a plural executive, whether it should be one chief executive, whether there should be some kind of executive sharing a committee, which is the way Virginia’s governorship worked at the time. Then it says there should be a bicameral legislature, that the lower house should be elected by the people, that the upper house should be elected by the lower house, that Congress should have a general legislative power, that it should also have a veto over all state laws. Also that there should be a national judiciary with inferior courts besides the Supreme Court, and that the judges should serve during good behavior.
You can see here that we have some of the features that end up in the U.S. Constitution, but we have others that are obviously flatly rejected by the Philadelphia Convention. In fact, what Madison had in mind was that there should be a supremacy clause and people who were in state office should take oaths to uphold the national constitution so that we would have a hierarchy with the federal government at the top and the state governments clearly subordinate to the new national government. But, of course, we know that over the course of the Philadelphia Convention, a lot of these proposals I just mentioned came up over and over and they were repeatedly rejected. Madison’s favorite one was the legislative veto over all state laws. That one he brought up over and over. The last time the convention voted on it, at the very end of the convention, every state voted no. Madison ends up leaving the convention telling Thomas Jefferson: Well, I think that because this element was omitted, this constitution is bound to fail within a few years. He’s very unhappy with it.
Mike: If he could only see what had happened during the 20th and 21st centuries, the 1787 Madison would be happy. I don’t know if the 1831 Madison or the 1812 Madison would have been happy. That’s the other part of the story. Madison kind of undergoes a metamorphosis in some of his thought. That review that you sent me yesterday of James Madison and the Making of America, the gentleman that reviewed the book kind of alluded to that. Madison started off as a nationalist. Was he won over by Jefferson or did he always want to be a federalist, do you think?
Gutzman: Well, first I should say what you’re talking about, I guess. Yesterday I read the review of James Madison and the Making of America in the Journal of Southern History, which academics publish, not only for the general public but for each other. We do the latter in what are called peer-reviewed journals. The second leading journal in the field of American history is the Journal of Southern History. That is the one that’s cited second-most often. I just saw the review of James Madison and the Making of America in that journal yesterday. I’m happy to note that it says my book on Madison is the best introduction to Madison. There you go.
Mike: Give the caveat. For the lay reader, it says it’s the best introduction to Madison.
Gutzman: I’m not sure that’s a caveat.
Mike: Well, academics and lay readers kind of read these things differently.
Gutzman: That’s true.
Mike: The reviewer’s closing statement was that Madison warmed over to the Jeffersonian view of the federal government even though he didn’t start off that way.
Gutzman: Right. Actually he quoted the book saying that Madison wanted to remember himself always having been a Jeffersonian. Maybe he did remember himself that way. Of course, the thing is, when he went to Philadelphia, he had in mind a national government with authority centralized and popular elections dominating the system. This is not what came out of the Philadelphia Convention. I have made the distinction over and over again that the chief difference between Madison and Hamilton coming out of the Philadelphia Convention is that, although neither of them got what he wanted, that is both of them wanted a centralized government and a new national constitution, once the Philadelphia Convention had created a federal constitution instead with limited power in Congress, with state legislators electing the Senate, with the Senate apportioned by state instead of by population and so on, Madison would have advocated the Constitution honestly as that. After it was ratified, he continued to insist that the Constitution had given limited power to the Congress and so on, while Hamilton, although he went out and advocated the Constitution as creating a limited federal government, as soon as it was instituted, he began acting as if he had gotten the national government he wanted and that Congress had unlimited authority and so on.
Madison generally, through his career, from the time the federal government was first organized in 1789 until he left federal politics in 1817, he generally behaved consistently with the argument that the Federalists made for the Constitution in the ratification debate, that is he generally behaved as if Congress had limited powers and so on. I think it’s important to notice this difference in ethics between him and Hamilton. Hamilton doesn’t seem to have been bound by any idea that the federal government’s powers were limited. Madison was perfectly willing to concede that the people had created this federal government and to try to use the federal government towards the ends he thought were positive, but always as the kind of government the people had created.
The most famous example of that, one I describe at some length in James Madison and the Making of America came the very last day he was president in 1817 when the last official act he took was to veto a bill that he had asked Congress to pass.
The reason he did that was he had said, in asking Congress to pass this bill, the Bonus Bill to provide for a national network of roads and canals funded by Congress, he had said in calling for this that if Congress found it didn’t have adequate authority under the Constitution to pass such a law, it should first amend the Constitution to give itself authority to pass such a law. In his veto message he said: Yes, I called for this, but I also said if you didn’t have adequate authority, to amend the Constitution so you did have adequate authority, and since you haven’t done that, I have to veto this law. Again, you can’t imagine Hamilton doing that.
There’s just no doubt he would have been concocting some lawyerly argument for the constitutionality of any measure he liked. That, of course, is why we can say today that we live in Alexander Hamilton’s America. What the federal government is about is inventing specious arguments for its own unlimited authority.
Mike: And they invent them with alarming speed these days, don’t they?
End Mike Church Show Transcript